Dumbbells and Kettlebells might have some similarities, but they’re also completely different pieces of equipment.
Today, we’re looking at what separates these two types of weight equipment. We’re going to look at the training differences, the practical demands of each piece of equipment, and which is best for your goal.
Dumbbell vs. Kettlebell Training Differences
There’s not much difference in the maximum weight you’re going to be able to use between a dumbbell and a kettlebell.
Dumbbells tend to be lighter individually, but obviously, that comes with the fact that you’ll be using them as pairs.
Standard dumbbells will go up to 50kg (110 lbs), while kettlebells tend to top out around 64kg (140 lbs). As ever, you can get special extra-heavy options for both, but you’re looking at a significantly higher price.
The difference is about whether you need more weight in one location or spread across two hands.
This is important when you’re considering the cost of a single kettlebell vs. a pair of them. There are some exercises where more weight is good (like squats and swings) but others where it can be limiting (like shoulder press and curls).
Range of Motion
The range of motion is similar for both dumbbells and kettlebells. You may run into range of motion problems with a very-heavy kettlebell since it can require two hands and thus limit movement.
There shouldn’t be any range problems for lighter kettlebells – other than the occasional issue of figuring out where to put the handle. Anything that uses one hand per weight is similar, allowing you to build muscle and full-range strength.
The main benefit to the kettlebell when it comes to range is the handle for swings, which sets it apart from the dumbbell.
Light kettlebells get extra range through the use of a single-arm. The heavier dumbbells are perfect for heavy kettlebell swings – one of the longest range movements possible.
There are different types of stability trained by dumbbells and kettlebells. They’re both useful but with a different focus.
In light dumbbells and kettlebells, there’s no real difference. They offer the same general single-arm stability challenge.
Kettlebells also have the benefit of weird exercises like the Turkish get-up and bottom-up shoulder press that are specifically designed to improve stability and balance.
However, at the mid-range, dumbbells are better. When you’re practicing movements with single weights for a single-arm, the additional range and stabilizer training of moderate-heavy dumbbells are far superior.
You’re not going to be buying a pair of identical weight kettlebells, so the challenge is getting the same benefits from 1 weight. You’re going to need to train with a kettlebell one arm at a time, making it less suitable for this kind of movement.
At heavyweights, the dynamic stability of a heavy lunge, goblet squat, or swing with a kettlebell is a real benefit. Specifically, the stability of the core and upper back gets a ton of work from heavy kettlebells.
It’s cheaper and safer to use a heavy kettlebell for these workouts, instead of over-spending on a pair of 60kg dumbbells you can only use for 1 or 2 exercises.
Like with the range and stability training, the choice between dumbbells and kettlebells comes down to your weight choice.
At light weights, the two are comparable – you can use them both for single-arm variations to combat imbalance. However, at mid-weights, the single weight vs. pair of weights makes dumbbells a better option for addressing the imbalance.
Dumbbells are a more effective system for improving these kinds of muscular imbalances because you can’t cheat them in the same way you might cheat a two-handed kettlebell chest press. The demand on individual joints and their stabilizers is the key here.
Heavy kettlebells can be useful for single-leg work, however, which can be very useful. It offers the chance to practice heavy single-leg movements like single-leg deadlifts with more weight than you’re likely to get out of a standard set of dumbbells.
Versatility is all about what you’re looking for.
Kettlebells open up the world of swings, one of the most important ways to improve your full body strength at home. A good kettlebell swing develops strength and power in the glutes and hamstrings while also developing core and upper back stability.
You can also practice heavier goblet squats with a heavy kettlebell with a single purchase, making it a better alternative to 2-dumbbell squats or superheavy dumbbell goblet squats.
On the other hand, the use of dumbbells as pairs is a huge benefit allowing you to perform exercises like presses, rows, and flyes without having to use single-arm variations. This is a massive deal for improving your time-efficiency.
Dumbbells also tend to have better jumps from one weight to another – making them more suitable for this kind of exercise. Jumping from an 8kg kettlebell press to 12 or 16 is much more challenging than the 8 and 10kg pairs found in a standard set.
This opens up a ton of loading options with a single piece of equipment that kettlebells just haven’t matched on the market yet!
These are Olympic dumbbells that can be loaded with your own weights. An excellent way to save money on a rack of dumbbells, by using the weight plates you already have.
Risk of Injury
You’re not more likely to get injured with a kettlebell, but you will need to spend more time getting used to the dynamic movement. The movement involved in something like a kettlebell swing can be a little tricky to get locked down – especially if the weight is heavy for you.
The additional weight and posture demands are what make kettlebells great. Still, they also introduce a slightly steeper learning curve that you’ll need to practice.
Kettlebells require some patience and deliberate practice, while dumbbells are usually ready to pick up and go once you learn safe form.
Before starting any new home workout, check our our 10 Tips for Preventing Injuries.
Dumbbell Vs. Kettlebell Decision Factors
What is Your Budget?
Dumbbells will generally cost more due to the demand of having a pair of weights and the fact they are usually sold in sets.
Adjustable dumbbells can be a great way to save cash on this kind of purchase. Still, kettlebells remain the most economical way to get a workout done.
The additional money is spent, however, on better function.
Having a pair of weights is a massive deal for improving your workouts’ efficiency and overload potential. It’s hard to argue that dumbbells aren’t the superior choice for classic strength and muscle-building workouts.
You will also need to focus on buying an appropriate amount of weight for your current strength and as you develop. For kettlebells, this can be quite challenging since the weights have significant gaps.
The Nuobell adjustable dumbbell is an excellent combination of weight, quality, and cost. If you don't know which adjustable dumbbell to buy, it's this one.
How Much Space Do You Have?
A single pair of dumbbells or a single kettlebell take up relatively little space. A whole rack of dumbbells, on the other hand, is huge – while a selection of kettlebells is likely to take up a meter of space.
Storage of kettlebells is much easier since they tend not to roll. They don’t have any complicated moving bits, and they’re not often finished wearing surfaces like dumbbells.
Your kettlebell collection could be the last thing standing in your home after a towering inferno. They’re easy to store, and they’re about as durable as it gets.
What Are Your Workout Goals?
If you’re into your classic strength and physique training, it has to be dumbbells. They beat the kettlebell for overload potential and the amount of simple, muscle-building exercises you can do with them.
On the other hand, the kettlebell swing completely changes the game. Dumbbells are suitable for conditioning workouts – with things like renegade rows and dumbbell muscle snatches – but the kettlebell swing is king.
One heavy kettlebell can be a whole conditioning workout, especially if you’re using one that is heavy enough to make a challenging goblet squat. A simple kettlebell workout of swings, squats, and rows is a huge amount of training for the whole body.
Suppose you’re here for efficiency and a simple fitness workout. In that case, the kettlebell has a lot on offer with very little storage or price demand.
Dumbbells can do similar things for you at extra cost. And the very real possibility that you’ll need to either buy adjustable dumbbells or multiple pairs to keep progressing.
What Is Your Training Experience & Strength Level?
More experience with kettlebells pays off massively in this heads-up because kettlebells reward the time you spend learning how to use them.
They’re weird and unusual, but learning how to do good swings, Turkish get-ups, and more specialist movements like the clean and press unlocks new levels of strength-conditioning workouts.
On the other hand, dumbbells are better all-rounders.
They only require you to move safely and don’t need a ton of specialist experience to use. They’re simpler, and that makes them a little bit safer for the less-experienced trainee.
What is Your Home Gym Setup Goal?
If you’re looking for a comprehensive home gym to last you the rest of your life, building up a collection of dumbbells is a good idea. You can take it a little at a time and watch the gym grow with you.
However, suppose you’re a younger trainee with limited cash or storage space. In that case, a kettlebell is an excellent piece of kit to have. It’s something you can throw in the back of a car, take with you, and store/use in a relatively small space with no other equipment.
Figure out your goals for your training – but also for your space and home gym. If you’re just trying to keep fit, a heavy kettlebell can be a game-changer for a single buy!
Head to Head Summary
- Pairs make them great for time-efficiency
- Greatest overload potential in the long run
- Great for stretching exercise like flyes
- Opens up great exercises like renegade rows
- Expensive in pairs
- Expensive if you don’t buy adjustable dumbbells
- Heavy dumbbells are usually not a smart choice – limiting top-end exercise
- Swings with dumbbells are weird and dangerous
- Great single implement for fitness and conditioning
- Easy to store
- Kettlebell swings and squats are brilliant tools
- Often cheaper due to single weight
- Rewards learning new and complex movements
- Limited to single-weight movements
- Jumps between kettlebells are quite large
- Not as useful for building muscle
- Requires time and learning to get the best results
Dumbbells and kettlebells are both excellent. If you had your pick, you’d get both!
But that’s not the world we live in. Sometimes, we have to make hard choices, and dumbbells are often the best choice for newer trainees or those with classical strength or bodybuilding goals.
Kettlebells are a bit more niche and offer great functional and conditional benefits in a single implement.
Adjustable is the smart choice for dumbbells, with the cost of a full rack reaching into the thousands. Kettlebells are compact, easy to store and reward, putting in the effort on unique and challenging movements.
The important thing is to get what fits your goals – both for your training and your space – and to make sure you understand the limitations of that choice.
Be real with your experience and goals, and you’ll get a great investment with either a kettlebell or dumbbells!